Note: I gave this talk as part of the “State of the Profession” panel at the American Society for Theatre Research conference in New Orleans, November 3, 2022.
When a stranger asks me, say, on an airplane, what I do for a living, I tell them, “I am a theatre historian.” This usually results in a puzzled look on the face of the stranger. I then proceed to tell them, “It’s like art historian, but theatre. You know, like Shakespeare, Greek theatre…” At this point, the puzzled look quickly turns to recognition and understanding. “Ah! That sounds so cool!” Such statement is often followed by an anecdote about something they had seen with a historically contextualized explanation. See, I’d say to myself, anyone can do theatre history.
The job title “theatre historian” may not be so unfamiliar in other cultures, especially in Europe. But in the U.S., it is something I need to explain repeatedly. My reference to art history is intentional. I’m a bit envious of art historians whose job title is more legible and whose scope of study seems so much more expansive and flexible than mine. Art historians can study digital art and visual media, as well as classical paintings. If theatre history could be that expansive, we’d be studying film, Netflix, as well as Shakespeare and Greek theatre. Same thing can be said of musicologists who study electronic recordings as well as live performances. Why isn’t theatre history like art history or musicology? Why is theatre history so much narrower than its counterparts?
There’s been a pattern to theatre insisting on the narrow but familiar path. Just consider what happened when film was invented in the late nineteenth century. The elite theatre makers and theatre goers saw the new technology so beneath them that they rejected its membership in what could be called “theatre.” In fact, Jewish immigrants who ran nickelodeons were pushed out of New York City and had to move all the way to California to found Hollywood. This is one of many, many examples of theatre rejecting new forms of dramatic storytelling to keep the definition of theatre narrow, and to some, “pure” and “elite,” which is often synonymous with white in the U.S. The more mediated twentieth century became, the more “live” theatre became.
We at ASTR have also taken the narrow and familiar path with theatre history. As many of you know, ASTR was founded in 1956 by a group of scholars who wanted to study theatre history. Many of them were in English departments but felt that theatre had to be researched not as literature but historically. The first presentation in that inaugural gathering was titled “Restoration Prompt-Books.” If such a title was proposed for this conference, would it have been accepted? I’m not sure—but if I had to bet, I’d say no. There are many more occurrences of the word “performance” in our program than “theatre.” What does that tell us?
I am not interested in revisiting the debate on Performance Studies versus Theatre Studies, and I don’t think such binary set up is beneficial to us in any way. But I am reminded of the December 2016 episode of “On Tap: A Theatre & Performance Studies Podcast” in which the co-host Pannill Camp described the debate as reflective of “subjective impression that scholars have about one’s own marginal position in the field.” He compared Performance Studies to the cool kids in high school who are outside smoking wearing black talking about Nietzsche while Theatre Studies stays inside to learn a bad version of a dance number for an extremely dorky musical. Extending this analogy, I think theatre history is stuck in a dusty high school library with thick glasses reading a Restoration prompt book.
This is, of course, a humorous over-simplification of what we do, but I don’t think it’s too far from a widely accepted perception we have of this organization. Let’s take a look at the ASTR logo, for instance.
The logo was designed in 2006 when Performance Studies was rising in popularity and helped grow ASTR into a bigger and more diverse organization. The word “performance” was used very broadly, and many saw it as an exciting new direction for younger scholars who equated theatre history with older white men in tweed jackets and glasses. When this logo was introduced, some members described it as representing a happy co-existence of the “old” as represented by the letters ASTR and the “new” with cursive “American Society for Theatre Research.” As one executive committee member explained, the four letters were designed to symbolize the gradual, perhaps inevitable, disappearance of old theatre history as practiced by the organization’s founders. Perhaps the logo was too prophetic. I know that many so-called “old guards” who call themselves theatre historians no longer feel welcome at ASTR. We must take a pause and think about what that means.
This reminds me of how Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men was staged. In the middle, you see white characters in mundane, realistic, and somewhat pointless scenes while the characters outside of the frame (who are gender-nonconforming performers) are portrayed as more exciting, progressive, cool, and subversive. Like our logo, one set of action in the play is framed as a museum piece, literally framed as if future doesn’t exist in that world. The frame, like theatre history, should be hanging in a museum to be preserved. In contrast, what’s outside of the frame is all about the future.
I would like to destroy this paradigm. I want to see its catastrophe because it is limiting us and preventing us from doing exciting, innovative scholarship. We’ve set up theatre history as a strawman to argue against Eurocentrism, colonialism, and white supremacy with an unmistaken tone of anti-theatricality.
I want to invite you to re-imagine theatre history together. I’m not suggesting that we return to the time of positivist and Eurocentric theatre history. What I want to see is a rewriting and resurgence of theatre history from diverse perspectives. I want us to decolonize theatre history together. We can declare the death of old theatre history—the term does not appear in our program in any of the panel or paper titles—so I think we can agree to make the declaration. But that doesn’t mean we are not doing theatre history. Many of us are still doing theatre history and doing it well. It’s time to rebrand theatre history and make it cool by expanding its scope and insisting on its relevance to our society.
Let me end with an example. While writing my recently published book Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era, I came across a theatrical makeup guidebook written in German published in 1831. The book, titled Die Kunst sich zu schminken (The Art of Making-Up), written by Ludwig Schneider (1805–1878), includes a section on making up for Chinese characters. It includes this image of what a comic Chinese character should look like. The actor is to wear a cap, which as far as I can tell, is made of a type of animal bladder that stretches like a balloon. It goes over the head and is stretched up to make the eyes look slanted and overall funny.
Yes, theatre history is fun. But it is also incredibly relevant today. The global pandemic has led to an exponential increase in the number of anti-Asian violence, which has its roots in how Asians have been represented theatrically. For centuries, Asians have been represented as comical, menacing, and unhuman. The evidence of such representation is ample in theatre history—especially European history. But I could not find anything written about the makeup book in English or German. Nothing. Theatre history is filled with similar research opportunities waiting for us to make them knowable. So this is an invitation to think together about a new paradigm for theatre history. Perhaps, like Dionysian rebirth, it can be made new again.